Contortionist Aleksei Goloborodko in Cirque du Soleil’s “Luzia.” Matt Beard Photography Courtesy
Contortionist Aleksei Goloborodko in Cirque du Soleil’s “Luzia.” Matt Beard Photography Courtesy

Arts & Culture

Review: Cirque du Soleil’s “Luzia” is magical – until an acrobat falls

By Rosemary Ponnekanti

April 01, 2017 09:42 AM

Fantastical beasts, Mexican superheroes, scuba-diving clowns, rain-drenched acrobats. Cirque du Soleil’s “Luzia,” which opened Thursday at Marymoor Park in Redmond, has all the magic you could hope for.

But the spell ended abruptly in the double-swing finale when a flying acrobat landed smack on her back and lay motionless, eventually carried off stage. According to the company’s official statement, she was “fully conscious and … stable,” and was not transported to hospital. But the accident leaves a question mark over not just her future, but our own part in her fall.

Why? Because for a long moment in that big tent, the audience suddenly realized these astonishing beings on stage doing amazing things are, actually, human. And they risk everything, in increasingly dangerous ways, for our amusement.

Here’s what happened: At the end of a stunning show came the Russian swings act, where two giant swings are set in motion and acrobats are launched from one to the other, some 15-20 feet into the air. There’s a crash mat underneath in the middle, and spotters. But what none of them predicted on opening night was when an acrobat over-rotated in a back flip and failed to land on her feet on a swing that was already moving away from her. As the swing reached the horizontal point, she fell and landed flat on her back on its hard surface. Quickly the performers stopped the swing, but the acrobat remained motionless (Cirque does not release names of injured performers, but the two women listed in the act were Alina Sotnikava of Belarus and Oksana Klymenko from Ukraine.) As she lay, her forearms still raised as if to catch the ropes that had eluded her, she was breathing, giving small juddering cries with each exhalation. It took the emergency crew 15 minutes to gently load her onto a stretcher and wheel her off stage, to a standing ovation.

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The swings were quietly packed away, and the cast solemnly finished the final act — a non-acrobatic “fiesta.”

Meanwhile, of course, you couldn’t stop thinking: Would that young woman ever be able to perform again? Or walk?

Yet, amazingly, some people are so conditioned to happy movie endings that they didn’t want to see the reality.

“I wish she’d come on stage at the end with the rest of them, just to say she was OK,” one woman said as we all trooped outside.

At the Friday night show, according to audience member Linda Manning, the swings act stopped midway, with artists stepping to the floor, allowing the swings to rock by themselves, and finally walking offstage.

“I knew it was a silent protest,” said Manning, who has been attending Cirque du Soleil shows for 20 years and had never seen anything like the walkout.

Of course, circus accidents happen, even with the big budget and world-class artists in Cirque du Soleil.

French aerialist Sarah Guyard-Guillot died after falling 90 feet from a derailed safety harness during “Ka” in Las Vegas in June 2013. Australian gymnast Lisa Skinner broke her C1 vertebra after she slipped and fell 16 feet from an aerial hoop in “Kooza” in Brisbane last November. Brazilian aerialist Karina Silva Poirier was in a coma after plunging 40 feet from aerial silks in rehearsals for “La Nouba” at Disneyland last October.

And “Luzia” saw a death in San Francisco last November: crew member Olivier Rochette, who was killed when a movable aerial lift fell on him during setup.

As Poirier’s brother Alfredo Silva — also a performer — said on Facebook, “What we do is we put our life at risk for your entertainment.”

Because that’s the gnarly truth that is at the heart of all circus. Danger is entertaining. Audiences will happily pay for it. And performers will happily take that money. But so will producers, and that’s when things get sticky. Because if danger makes money, more danger makes more money, and suddenly you get a big-budget circus company with the incentive to add more and more dangerous elements.

Automated aerial rigging that wildly flies artists with no safety net or harness? We’re used to that now, it’s standard. Giant mechanized wheels on a revolving stage? Bring it on.

And now “Luzia” adds water — sheets and showers and pools of an element that’s the exact opposite of safe when you’re trying to hold onto something.

A magical show

Until the accident, though, “Luzia” was quite magical. With a huge glowing disk as backdrop and costumes in a palette of marigold, magenta, aqua and cobalt, it’s a dip into a fantasy Mexico, one where hummingbirds dive through hoops (another heart-in-mouth moment, with added speed and height thanks to two giant treadmills) and crocodiles play trumpets. Highlights included the Cyr wheel duo with dance trapeze, the acrobats floating out of their spinning wheels in sunshine-yellow dresses and the final drenching rain shower adding a powerful visual element as the trapeze artist spun in a vortex of golden water. The acrobalance Adagio was both tender and dark, with the pink-corseted flyer (Seattle’s Kelly McDonald) flung into double back layouts and spins like a doll.

Seven poles in a rainforest turned acrobats into strange creatures climbing, diving and spinning with beautiful contortion and strength; juggler Rudolf Janacek dazzled with silver clubs spinning literally too fast to see; contortionist Aleksei Goloborodko got audience gasps with an otherworldly, lizardlike ability to bend backward and sit on his own head; and Benjamin Courtenay fused strength with a kind of spiritual grace in an aerial straps act that dipped him into a glowing pool of water. It was great to see an African in the cast (Abou Traoré, juggling soccer balls as if they were part of his foot). Krzystof Holowenko sailed through a 360-degree giant swing like Superman in a luchadore costume; strongman Ugo Laffolay combined comedy with perfect press-ups in a vintage red swimsuit.

Of course, there’s never much of a plot in Cirque du Soleil; there doesn’t have to be. But what there was, last Thursday, was prophetic. Framed as a plane ride to Mexico, which drops a clown without a parachute into a field of magic marigolds, the show began with a calm voice telling us to fasten seatbelts and turn off our phones.

But, it added quirkily, “in the event of a problem” with our equipment during freefall, “we won’t be able to help you.”

And that’s the cold reality of circus, which on opening night hit that acrobat smack on the back. Something could go wrong. And all the audience can do is pay money and watch.

Rosemary Ponnekanti: 253-597-8568, @rose_ponnekanti


When: Various showtimes through May 21.

Where: Marymoor Park, 6046 West Lake Sammamish Parkway NE, Redmond.

Tickets: $35-$290.